Miguel’s affectionate ode to his poly­glot city

Los Angeles Times - - ARTS & BOOKS - RAN­DALL ROBERTS POP MU­SIC CRITIC

Be­fore hit­ting play last month to be­gin a one-on-one lis­ten­ing ses­sion of an early mix of his ex­cep­tional new al­bum, “Wild­heart,” the multi-hy­phen­ate mu­si­cian Miguel of­fered a sort of pre­am­ble.

The Grammy-win­ning gui­tarist, pro­ducer, singer and lyri­cist, born and raised in San Pe­dro and In­gle wood, de­scribed his goal of mak­ing an al­bum that evoked not only a sound but an at­mo­spheric vibe, a cer­tain qual­ity of light, an es­sen­tial South­ern Cal­i­for­nia energy.

“I wanted it to be rooted in Los An­ge­les be­cause it’s where I’m from,” said the artist, 29, stand­ing at his lap­top in a posh lis­ten­ing room within his man­age­ment team’s Cul­ver City of­fices. “I wanted it to feel like twi­light, be­cause it’s my fa­vorite time of day. And it’s al­most the per­fect sym­bol­ism for what Los An­ge­les is.”

A con­fi­dent artis­tic break­through re­leased dur­ing a par­tic­u­larly fruit­ful pe­riod for Los An­ge­les mu­sic, “Wild­heart” mixes con­tem­po­rary soul, elec­tri­fied R&B, rock and com­mer­cial pop, ig­nor­ing genre re­stric­tions on the­way to cre­at­ing its own brand of co­he­sion. He wanted the al­bum, which will be re­leased June 30, “to feel the way that I know my city,” a place he de­scribes as “a weird mix of hope and des­per­a­tion.”

For in­stance, Venice Beach, where he’s spent a lot of time.

“It’s beau­ti­ful— peo­ple-watch­ing, you see all these char­ac­ters, the sun. Bu­tat 8:45or 9 o’clock, the dere­licts start com­ing out, and it be­comes a com­pletely dif­fer­ent place.”

Thick with more guitar than his pre­vi­ous two records com­bined, the 13 songs roam the re­gion, driven by a mix of elec­tri­fied funk and lust­ful smooth rhythms. Wo­ven through are lyri­cal themes that doc­u­ment a city alive with pit­falls and pos­si­bil­i­ties. Dur­ing “Hol­ly­wood Dreams,” he imag­ines fad­ing star­dom while bow­ing be­fore its most po­tent sym­bol: “Sweet Hol­ly­wood sign, you’re my sal­va­tion.”

The artist born Miguel Jon­tel Pi­mentel surfs through bar­rels lit­eral and fig­u­ra­tive on the cow­bell-driven “Waves,” se­duces with bawdy cho­ruses about hav­ing sex “like we’re film­ing in the Val­ley.” For “N.W.A” Miguel har­nesses the Comp­ton hip-hop group’s moniker to de­scribe a lover with a cer­tain taste in men, then turns the track over to ex­pert rap­per Ku­rupt for a more de­tailed de­scrip­tion.

Per­me­at­ing it all is a mu­si­cian who’s been pur­su­ing a life in mu­sic since he was a mid­dle-school kid in­tro­duc­ing him­self to new class­mates by singing them a song. The ges­ture re­vealed his con­fi­dence, but some mem­bers of the au­di­ence were less im­pressed. It touched off a fewyears of bul­ly­ing at the hands of a posse of pop­u­lar kids.

Cue­ing up “What’s Nor­mal Any­way,” he quotes one of the city’s grit­ti­est bards. “Ev­ery­body knows the [Charles] Bukowski quote, ‘Find what you love and let it kill you.’ I’m just a firm be­liever that that’s what life is re­ally all about.” He ups the vol­ume while his recorded voice opens on an ado­les­cence spent strad­dling cul­tures: “Too proper for the black kids, too black for the Mex­i­cans, too square to be a hood.... What’s nor­mal any­way?”

Early call­ing

De­ter­mi­na­tion pre­vailed, as did the mes­sages he was ab­sorb­ing from West Coast hip-hop and es­sen­tial East Coast jams by EPMD and Gang Starr. His black mother, whom he de­scribes as “very re­li­gious,” didn’t al­low rap mu­sic in the house, but his fa­ther was more flex­i­ble. As such, the son and his brother ab­sorbed the teach­ings of Funkadelic, Queen, the Rolling Stones, Tom Tom Club and Bob Mar­ley.

“He loved it all,” said Miguel of his fa­ther, who is Mex­i­can. “All the other stuff — the soul stuff, jazz, that’s Mom. Which I love. It’s at the core. It’s the roots.”

That the son would be some­how in­volved in mu­sic was never in doubt, said Miguel. “There’s never been any other thing. I’ve done other jobs, but I al­ways knew I was go­ing to be do­ing this.”

That de­ter­mi­na­tion, cou­pled with ob­vi­ous tal­ent, earned him au­di­tions “in ev­ery ... of­fice you could think of,” he re­called. “Name them, they’d seen me and heard me.”

The al­lure was ob­vi­ous. A brown-eyed hand­some charmer with al­mond-shaped eyes that glow and a pouf of black hair that hewears in a curly pom­padour, Miguel ex­udes charisma.

But at first it didn’t click. “They were try­ing to make me more black,” he said, recit­ing a typ­i­cal rejection spiel: “‘Even if we think you’re tal­ented, we don’t know what to do with you.’ That’s what it was. It wasn’t hard to see.” What he calls his “piv­otal mo­ment” oc­curred when he was 19. “I fi­nally stopped try­ing to con­form.” He skipped col­lege and im­mersed him­self in song­writ­ing, prac­tic­ing, pro­duc­ing, work­ing in stu­dios, learn­ing the eti­quette and lan­guage of the craft.

The more he ab­sorbed, the more he be­came con­vinced: “It wasn’t out there, what I wanted to hear. That made me be­lieve that I didn’t have to set­tle for be­ing a writer.”

Good thing. “Wild­heart” is his best, a few lev­els up from the artist’s trend-chas­ing de­but and his fol­low-up com­mer­cial break­through “Kaleidoscope Dream.” The first, re­leased in 2010 af­ter a two-year de­lay by Jive Records, gen­er­ated buzz with “Sure Thing” and “All I Want Is You,” the lat­ter of which fea­tured an early ap­pear­ance by rap­per J. Cole.

“Kaleidoscope” was is­sued by his cur­rent la­bel, RCA, in 2012 and trans­formed his ca­reer. Its break­out hit, “Adorn,” a swoon-wor­thy crush-note that set hearts aflut­ter, hit the top of Bill­board’s R&B/Hip Hop sin­gles chart that fall and earned him a Grammy Award for best R&B song. The clever comeon “How Many Drinks” fea­tured a break­out verse by fel­low An­ge­leno and friend Ken­drick La­mar. The al­bum peaked at No. 3 and con­firmed Miguel’s com­mer­cial po­ten­tial, but the deeper cuts sug­gested an artist in­ter­ested in by­pass­ing the Top 40 dead end.

The time since was spent tour­ing and pro­mot­ing, a grace­ful as­cent marked by a not-so-grace­ful im­pro­vised stage leap dur­ing the 2013 Bill­board Mu­sic Awards. The ac­ci­dent, for which Miguel has apol­o­gized, in­jured two at­ten­dees, one of whom re­cently filed suit against the artist and the MGM Grand in Las Ve­gas, where the cer­e­mony was held.

Miguel pro­duced Mariah Carey’s should-have-been smash “Beau­ti­ful” and helped de­liver hooks (with Rod Stewart) on ASAP Rocky’s “Ev­ery­day” and as part of the “Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1” sound­track (with the Chem­i­cal Bros.). He bought a house in Playa del Rey, up the road from Pe­dro. While set­tling in and get­ting into the cre­ative zone, he pro­cessed his rise and con­tem­plated the iden­tity of both his city and him­self.

His aim was to bet­ter re­flect and pub­licly em­brace his multi-hy­phen­ate iden­tity, one that baf­fled de­ci­sion-mak­ers ear­lier in his ca­reer. “Ev­ery­body was like, ‘How do we mar­ket him? What is he? Is he Asian and black? But his name is Miguel.’ My curly hair would throw peo­ple off too. ‘We don’t get it. He’s black? Asian? Mex­i­can? Look at his hair. What?’ ”

L.A. iden­tity

A few weeks later af­ter a late­morn­ing photo shoot at the Sunken City, beach-side con­crete ru­ins in San Pe­dro that have be­come a teen hang­out, Miguel and his en­tourage loaded into a black Es­calade and head to Busy Bee Mar­ket, a lo­cally well-known sand­wich shop and gro­cery not far from Ter­mi­nal Is­land. While wait­ing for a sub, the artist sat on a bench es­pous­ing Pe­dro as peo­ple around him ca­su­ally rub­ber-necked in recog­ni­tion. “It’s main­tained a bit of a small-town vibe, which is awe­some,” he said.

He spoke with ob­vi­ous love for his home­town, a largely work­ing­class trans­porta­tion hub with a char­ac­ter far re­moved from the wealthy en­claves nearby.

If the Busy Bee visit sug­gested a newly crowned, newly rich cham­pion re­vis­it­ing his quaint, roug­hand-tum­ble youth, it was tem­pered by Miguel’s in­ter­ac­tions with a few old friends he ran into while eat­ing on the curb out­side. “Say hi to your sis­ter,” he said to one friend.

“All the long­shore­men were up the hill,” he said of his neigh­bor­hood, which was “closer to where the cruise ships pulled up, right by the bridge.” He re­called a thrift store in Old Town called Cheap that pro­vided the style-con­scious young would-be artist with in­ex­pen­sive fash­ion. “We didn’t have any money, so I’d go in there and geek out on weird....” The re­sult was a mix-and-match in­di­vid­u­al­ism borne of equal parts ne­ces­sity and cre­ativ­ity. The store’s gone, but Old Town hasn’t changed much, he said.

“I had to pick and choose who I iden­ti­fied with, which con­trib­utes to me be­ing the artist that I am. I don’t feel like I need to con­form. I’ve been dif­fer­ent.” The ten­sion, though, fu­eled a re­al­iza­tion. “I am Los An­ge­les,” he said. “I’m Mex­i­can and black. As far as I’m con­cerned, I’m one of the best rep­re­sen­ta­tions of L.A.” Though Korean, Ar­me­nian and Chi­nese Amer­i­cans and oth­ers might take ex­cep­tion, that idea helped de­fine “Wild­heart.”

The artist, who will head­line Club Nokia on Fri­day, re­cently an­nounced his Wild heart Tour, which will carry him across North Amer­ica through the sum­mer. It will con­clude in grand fash­ion on the lawn of Hol­ly­wood For­ever Ceme­tery on Sept. 4.

At his man­age­ment of­fices as the fi­nal songs played, the artist came upon a kind of con­clu­sion. “Wild hearts are the ones that tran­scend,” he ex­plained. “They tran­scend pro­gram­ming, the sub­con­scious ceil­ings that are placed upon us whether we know it or not. It’s the ones that say ... I’m go­ing to do it. I be­lieve I can.”

“Wild­heart” sug­gests heal ready has.

ran­dall.roberts@latimes.com

Christina House For The Times

“I’M MEX­I­CAN AND BLACK. As far as I’m con­cerned, I’m one of the best rep­re­sen­ta­tions of L.A.,” says Miguel. “Wild­heart” will be re­leased June 30.

Pho­to­graphs by Christina House For The Times

MIGUEL

was born and raised in San Pe­dro, where he is pic­tured, and In­gle­wood. He wanted “Wild­heart,” his new al­bum, “to feel the way that I knowmy city.”

MIGUEL is right at home at Busy Bee Mar­ket, a sand­wich shop and gro­cery in San Pe­dro that is fa­vored by the lo­cals.

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